Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tips for Writers

It’s been a while since my last post. A lot of noteworthy things have happened, but I’m so unaccustomed to blogging that I’ve failed to jot any of that stuff down. I may try to play catch-up in a future post. But right now, I want to share a few writing suggestions. These are things I’ve been trying out lately that have proven quite effective.
Tip #1 – Interact with other writers.
About a year ago, I was forced to realize something rather difficult: I didn’t know anyone who could give me the kind of critiques I needed. See, I had just finished writing the first draft of a novel a few months prior, and I was trying to get feedback by passing it around to all of my family and friends. A select few responded immediately, but their corrections mostly had to do with grammar and punctuation. While I appreciated the contribution, the area I felt needed the most work was the story itself. Very few offered anything that was truly helpful in this way. Now, I don’t want to make it sound worse than it was – I did get a few solid tips, mostly from English teachers. But it still felt more difficult than it needed to be. I wondered why no one seemed to get what I was asking, why they were reluctant to have sit-down conversations about what I was doing wrong. Well, the simple answer is that they didn’t care about the story as much as I did; they had no stake in it. I was asking them to do something for which they had no natural talent or interest, and they weren’t even getting anything in return.
I began using my Twitter account to network with other writers – this is something else I highly recommend. I found authors I had read and respected and decided to start following their tweets. I looked at the people they retweeted, and I’d start following them too. Soon, I had a sizable number of writers, editors, literary magazines, and bloggers showing up on my feed (a few of them were even nice enough to follow me back). I asked them questions about the best ways to get critiques, and one thing I heard over and over again was that I needed to show my writing to other writers. But I didn’t know any other writers, so what was I supposed to do? One of my Twitter friends recommended joining a local writing group. I decided to give it a shot.
For those of you who have never used it, Meetup is an excellent resource. After a quick search, I was able to find a freshly-formed writing group meeting in my city. Note: not all writing groups are worthwhile, and not all people in your writing group are going to be worthwhile. But I was lucky enough to join one with a core group of startlingly talented folks. I’ve been to about 6 meetings now, and overall, it has been a really great experience. Over the past few meetings our group has started to dwindle some, but I’ve still made a few worthwhile contacts who are happy to give me fantastic critiques. Which brings me to my next point…
Tip #2 – Give critiques.
Remember how I said that my friends and family weren’t as interested, because they weren’t getting anything in return? Well, with other writers you never have to worry about that, because you will be asked to return the favor. The other writers you meet will have experienced the same frustrations as yourself. They know what it’s like to pour their souls into a story, agonizing until they have precisely the right words, doubting and constantly second guessing themselves, only to have their mothers or significant others look over it once and respond in a tone of half-question, “It’s good!” They know all about that stuff, and usually they are just as eager as you are to get real feedback. And as a writer, there is no one more qualified to help them than you. You should always be willing to offer your hand at a critique, and not just because it helps other writers who will in turn help you. No, there’s more to it than that. Taking the time to really read something, to see it for what it is, in all of its beauty and flaws, that WILL make you a better writer. Think of it as practice for your own writing endeavors. When you critique others, it is like you are an NFL player studying game film. The more experience you have scrutinizing stories, the more equipped you are to tell your own.
Tip #3 – Read.
This is closely related to the previous tip. It seems like it should go without saying (but often it doesn’t) that writers need to always be reading. All sorts of things, all the time. As a writer, you need to form a serious addiction to processing information. Particularly information that pertains to your craft, but in a pinch anything will do. Short stories, novels, poetry, newspaper articles, tabloid trash, recent scientific findings, the ingredients in a box of your favorite breakfast cereal. There are useful ways to fold all of that information into your own work. I have a lot of problems in this area, and I usually end up putting down most books I start reading. I’m trying to get better at this, and I’ve recently started a diet where I require myself to consume at least one story a day. It doesn’t matter if it is a chapter in a book, a short story heard on a podcast, or a film I see on the big screen. The point is, I like to have the raw parts of a story floating around in my mind at all times. Theme, character, setting, motivation, cause and effect, action and consequence, dialogue, conflict, energy... Before attempting to tell your own stories, you need to be confident in your understanding of what a story is, what makes it powerful, and how are the parts arranged for maximum effect. The only way to gain that understanding is by keeping your eyes open. Good stories are not made from scratch – they are made from thoughtfully selected ingredients and from influences so far-ranging and vast it is impossible to whittle it down to anything that resembles a specific formula. I sit in traffic for about 2-1/2 hours a day, so I’m not always able to read as often as I’d like, but I’ve taken up listening to podcasts in that time, and I’ve discovered some that are pretty great. I have discovered a lot of truly great literature this way, and I would recommend these podcasts to any writer.
New Yorker Fiction Podcast – About one episode per month. Story followed by discussion format. The discussion is one of the best aspects of this show. It almost feels as if I am sitting in on a university literature course discussion. The stories are top shelf.
PRI: Selected Shorts Podcast – About one episode per week. Great stories read live on stage by great actors. Usually more than one story per episode. This one is probably my favorite. The actors really bring the stories to life.
This American Life – One episode per week. Each show has a theme and features several types of stories centered around that theme. The stories on this show are primarily nonfiction.
The Moth Podcast – One episode per week. Live storytelling performances on stage by people without notes. This is storytelling in its most basic, stripped-down form. Nothing fancy, just a human voice with a story to tell.
Stuff You Should Know Podcast – About once every two days. Frequently updated show that is chock full of interesting information. Who knows, maybe you’ll get something useful out of it.

1 comment:

  1. I thought for sure cigars would make this list. Name ONE great author that didn't smoke a cigar or a pipe! Mary Shelley........Name TWO great authors that didn't smoke a cigar or a pipe!